Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is the Prospect's daily blogger and senior writer. He also blogs for the Plum Line at the Washington Post, and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

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How Republicans Will Use Scott Walker's Lack of a College Degree To Stir Class Resentment

Since we're now all fascinated by Scott Walker, there's been some discussion in the past few days of the fact that Walker would be the first president in many decades who didn't have a college degree. He left Marquette after four years, and though he apparently was quite a few credits short of graduating, most people would regard it as an unwise career move when you've come that far. Nevertheless, Walker did fine for himself, and some conservatives are now holding up his example as a triumphant rebuke to liberal elitism. Anticipating the scorn Walker will receive from those elitists, they rattle off lists of the high-achievers who didn't get a degree, like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg.

From what I can tell, the only liberal who has actually said that Walker's lack of a degree is problematic was Howard Dean, in an appearance on MSNBC's Morning Joe. But Dean's one comment keeps getting cited (see Glenn Reynolds or Deroy Murdock or Charles C.W. Cooke or Chris Cillizza) as evidence that "liberals" are looking down their snooty noses at Walker, and by extension, at the majority of Americans who don't have a college degree.

Which leads me to believe that this is a vein Republicans may be tapping into repeatedly, particularly if Walker becomes the GOP nominee. It wouldn't be anything new, though if he himself indulged in it, Walker could come by resentment of pointy-headed intellectuals a little more honestly than, say, George H.W. Bush, graduate of Phillips Andover and Yale, who sneered in 1988 that Michael Dukakis represented the "Harvard boutique." Walker also recently started battling the University of Wisconsin (beloved within the state, but about which voters in Iowa have no similar feelings, I'm guessing), which should help him portray himself as a crusader against the tenured enemies of real Americans.

Anti-intellectualism has often been an effective way for Republicans to stir up class resentment while distracting from economic issues. It says to voters: Don't think about who has economic power and which party is advocating for their interests. Don't aim your disgruntlement at Wall Street, or corporations that don't pay taxes, or the people who want to keep wages low and make unions a memory. Point it in a different direction, at college professors and intellectuals (and Hollywood, while you're at it). They're the ones keeping you down. You got laid off while the CEO took home $20 million last year? Forget about that: The real person to be angry at is a professor of anthropology somewhere who said something mean about Scott Walker because he doesn't have a degree.

There are going to be more than a few Republicans who see in that argument a handy way to shift the discussion away from economic inequality while still sending the message that they're on the side of ordinary folks. Here, for instance, is Rush Limbaugh yesterday:

The stories are legion of all the great Americans, successful, who have not graduated from college. And of course the two names that come to people's mind right off the bat are me and Steve Jobs. And then some people throw Gates in there. So there are three people who have reached the pinnacle, who have not gone to college, and those two or three names get bandied about all the time in this discussion.

But it doesn't matter. To the elites, that doesn't matter, it doesn't mean that they are qualified to be in the elite group. And the elite group in Washington is what we call the ruling class or the D.C. establishment, both parties, or what have you. And it's especially bad in the Drive-By Media. That is one of the most exclusive and I should say exclusionary groups of people that you can imagine.

If you look at it as a club and look at the admittance requirements, it is one of the most exclusives things to get into. It doesn't matter how successful you are, doesn't matter how much money you make, whether you're more successful than they are, whether you earn more than they do, whether you have a bigger audience than they, doesn't matter, you are not getting in that club.

Something tells me that somewhere at the RNC there's an intern who just got an assignment to monitor every bit of mainstream and social media she can for any moment where a liberal says something condescending about Walker. Then Republicans can wave it about like the bloody shirt of liberal elitism. It's a lot easier than coming up with an economic plan that doesn't involve upper-income tax cuts.

Back to the Future in 2016

White House photo by Pete Souza

It's never long in a presidential race before one candidate or another says, "This election isn't about the past—it's about the future." But the 2016 election is probably going to be even more about the past than most, particularly given that there will be no incumbent running.

I thought of that late last week when I heard that Rick Perry—who promises to once again provide more than his share of unintentional comic relief over the next year or so until he drops out—told attendees at an event in New Hampshire that Abraham Lincoln was a great advocate of states' rights. "Abraham Lincoln read the Constitution, and he also read the Bill of Rights, and he got down to the Tenth Amendment, and he liked it," Perry said. "That Tenth Amendment that talks about these states, these laboratories of democracy."

That's certainly a novel perspective, to characterize Lincoln as a Tenth-Amendment fetishist like today's tea partiers. But I suppose one can forgive the impulse, given how far the GOP has traveled from what it was in the time of the first Republican president. Pop quiz: If they had been alive in the 1860s, how many of today's Republicans would have been on the side of the North? Not too many. Rick Perry sure as hell wouldn't have.

But the history we're going to argue much more about in 2016 isn't so distant, and its protagonists—and their family members—are still around. Last week, a prominent Republican economist came up with what may be the most biting message any Democrat could hope for:

"When Hillary Clinton runs, she's going to say, 'The Republicans gave us a crappy economy twice, and we fixed it twice. Why would you ever trust them again?' " said Kevin Hassett, a former economic adviser to GOP nominees Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. "The objective for the people in the Republican Party who want to defeat her is to come up with a story about what's not great" in this recovery, especially wage growth, he said.

Now imagine that Jeb Bush is the Republican nominee, and replace "The Republicans gave us a crappy economy twice" with "The Bushes gave us a crappy economy twice." It hits even harder.

Is that unfair? In the sense that Jeb Bush can't be held directly responsible for what his father and brother did in office, sure. Or at least, he's no more responsible for it than any other Republican. It isn't as though there's a distinct Bushian strand of economic policy within the GOP, one that differs in some meaningful way from what other Republicans advocate. Although nobody has released detailed campaign policy papers yet, it's all but guaranteed that the things Jeb Bush would do as president don't differ too much from what the other candidates would do. They'd all like to cut taxes, particularly on investments; they'd reduce regulations on corporations; and they'd do what they could to roll back the policies of the Obama years in areas like labor and environmental enforcement. It's possible that one candidate or another has some spectacularly creative new idea that will completely transform the American economy in ways no one has imagined. But probably not.

If the debate around the economy truly has changed, from a focus on what will produce growth to a focus on how to make the economy's fruits more widely and equitably distributed, then it's even less clear what Republicans will have to offer. Hillary Clinton can say that the years of her husband's administration were the only period in recent decades that saw real (if not overwhelming) growth in wages for people in the middle and the bottom. If Jeb Bush were her opponent, it would offer an opportunity to have a historically grounded discussion about everything that has happened since his father was president.

Because I've yet to hear Republicans explain that history. If they tried to, they'd have to confront the fact that at every key point, their predictions about what effect policy changes would have turned out completely wrong. When Bill Clinton passed his 1993 budget with an increase in the top income tax rate, they all said that a "job-killing recession" was sure to result (I assume the phrase came from Newt Gingrich, because its use was so ubiquitous during that time). What actually ensued was not a recession but a rather remarkable boom; there were nearly 23 million more Americans working when Clinton handed off the White House to George W. Bush than when Clinton took office eight years before. Bush then committed himself to cutting taxes, particularly those affecting the wealthy—not just income taxes but taxes on investments and large inheritances as well. Republicans predicted that these policy changes would produce an economy practically bursting with wonderful new jobs for all.

That, of course, didn't happen. Total job growth during the Bush years was a meager 1.3 million. Even if we're unusually kind to Bush and go back to the high point of jobs in his administration (the end of 2007, before the Great Recession), he would only score a 5.6 million increase, or around one quarter of what Clinton managed.

Then Barack Obama allowed some of those top-tier tax cuts to expire, despite Republicans' protestation that doing so would create a ball and chain dragging the economy down. Once again, disaster did not ensue; 2014 was the best year for job growth since 1999.  

Like a number liberals before me, I'll take pains to note that this history doesn't demonstrate that increasing taxes on the wealthy produces job growth. What it does show is that relatively small changes in the wealthy's taxes have little effect on the economy one way or the other. Yet the idea that altering the tax burden on the wealthy produces enormous economy-wide effects is still central to conservative economic thinking. And it's about as fanciful as the idea that Abraham Lincoln was a states' rights advocate.

Unlike some of the policy debates we engage in, this history of the last couple of decades is pretty easy for voters to understand, since most of them lived through it. And nothing would make it more obvious than a general election between Bill Clinton's wife and George W. Bush's brother. 

Photo of the Day, Media Edition

New York Times media columnist David Carr, speaking at an event yesterday. He died later that evening after collapsing in the Times newsroom. 

It's Going to Be Hard to Convince Voters of Republicans' Compassion On the Economy

In recent months, Republicans have been searching for ways to talk about the economy that go beyond their traditional supply-side focus on growth, which says that if we do a few key things (cut taxes, reduce regulations), the economy will grow and everyone will benefit. Since the conversation about economics has shifted to things like inequality and wage stagnation, potential 2016 candidates want to show that they're concerned about more than growth; this need is particularly acute in the wake of 2012, when Mitt Romney was caricatured as a ruthless plutocrat crushing the dreams of regular people in order to amass his vast fortune, all while heaping contempt on the "47 percent."

Many Republicans believe that this entirely explains Romney's loss, and if they can convince voters that they understand their struggles and have ideas to help them, then victory in 2016 is possible. But that would require them to counter some powerful and deeply ingrained stereotypes about their party. As Brendan Nyhan explains today, there is some political science research into the question of whether it can be done, under the heading of "issue ownership" and "issue trespassing":

The Republican focus on inequality could address this vulnerability by helping the party look more caring, reducing the G.O.P.'s "damaging reputation for caring only about the economic interests of the rich," as National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru put it.

But there is risk in issue-trespassing of the sort that the Republicans are attempting. One political science study found that the strategy is rarely successful and that voters tend to rely on party stereotypes instead — a conclusion that is reinforced by miscues like the infamous Dukakis tank ride. Democrats are already likening Jeb Bush to Mr. Romney in an attempt to buttress the stereotype of the G.O.P. as the party of the rich.

And even if the move to address inequality lessens Republican image problems, it will be only a stopgap. Assuming the economy continues to improve, Republicans will be forced to pursue what Lynn Vavreck, an Upshot contributor, calls an "insurgent" strategy in 2016, trying to focus the election on another issue in which its presidential candidate has an inherent advantage.

Unfortunately, good insurgent issues are hard to find. Inequality doesn't look like a winner for Republicans in this election. That's why Mr. Bush, like Mr. Dukakis, has struck some analysts as sounding like a technocrat — he can’t run on the economy and doesn't have a good alternative issue or trait to emphasize (unlike his brother George, who successfully ran as the Not Clinton candidate in 2000).

The Dukakis example is an interesting and revealing one. In 1988, at the end of a huge military build-up, Dukakis tried to argue that the question wasn't whether our military was big, but whether we were making smart decisions about what weapons we purchased and what we did with them. Then somebody thought it would be good for him to take a ride in a tank, just to show that he liked big things that go boom just as much as any Republican, ignoring the fact that it would violate the most important rule of presidential campaigning, which is "No hats." You candidate should never, ever put on a hat. The Republicans made an ad mocking him for riding in a tank, and suddenly the discussion on defense was back on the strong/weak axis, not on the smart/dumb axis Dukakis wanted.

In 2016, all it's going to take is one thing to undo months of careful attempts by the Republican candidate to show he's compassionate and understands people's economic needs. Maybe it'll be an infelicitous remark the candidate makes, or it might even be something someone else says. But the Democrats will be waiting to show the voters that the nominee is just like every other Republican, and when it happens they'll be on it like white on rice. 

Friday Linguistic Digression


Since it's Friday, we'll begin the day with a non-political digression on language. I've been meaning to put together my thoughts on this story that came out a couple of weeks ago from Britt Peterson of the Boston Globe on the "quotative like," the now-common use in which the word "like" indicates someone saying something, as in, "I was like, no way." It drives lots of people nuts, but the message from America's linguists is, tough luck. Not only has it spread to every English-speaking country on earth, it isn't going anywhere:

As the recent studies show, the spread of both flavors of "be like" is a result of the phrases' dazzling variety of uses. "I'm like," in particular, has clearly taken firm root, with even Michelle Obama using it recently on "The Tonight Show" to talk about the problems of going out on a date with the president's entire motorcade: "He's like, 'I'm going to take you, and we're going to go out on a romantic dinner.' And I'm like, 'Is the ambulance coming?'" As Cukor-Avila said, "I tell my students, eventually all the people who hate this kind of thing are going to be dead, and the ones who use it are going to be in control."

I understand why some people find the quotative like grating. It's because it originated with young people, and older people are often bothered by new language uses that come from the young. It makes them feel, well, old. And out of touch. And on their way out.

The question this raises for me is, when is it reasonable to condemn a new linguistic development like this one? It's obviously absurd to say that English should be frozen in all the terms and usages that were common whenever you happened to have grown up; language is constantly changing. To hold otherwise is to be an insufferable fuddy-duddy. On the other hand, there are some usages or expressions that there are good reasons to denounce.

For instance, my personal linguistic pet peeve is the expression "I could care less," which some time in the last couple of decades all but replaced its antecedent, "I couldn't care less." The reason it infuriates me is that when you say "I could care less" you're actually saying not just something other than what you mean, you're saying the opposite of what you mean. Although I understand that I've lost the battle on this one, I'm going to keep saying "I couldn't care less," even if eventually it marks me as some kind of weirdo.

In this case, I think I have a perfectly good case that the old expression is better than the new expression. You could argue that everyone understands that when you say "I could care less" you actually mean the opposite of what you're saying, and you'd be right, but at least I have a sound reason for my position. And that's what most language complaints lack. For instance, if "I was like" to mean "I said" bothers you, can you offer a reason why, beyond, "That's not how people should talk"? Probably not.

The danger, however, is that if we're too open-minded, and say that since English is a gloriously evolving system where anything goes, we'll lose our willingness to say that some words and expressions are better than others, because of how they describe an idea, or even just how they sound. It would be no fun if you greeted every newly minted word with a thumbs-up just because we want to let a thousand language flowers bloom. For example, when Sarah Palin invented the word "refudiate," the problem was that she just meant to say "repudiate"—it wasn't some new idea that incorporated elements of both refuting and repudiating. She uses it just to mean repudiate, as in deny, denounce, etc., and not to mean refute, as in make an argument in opposition to. And, of course, instead of just saying "I made a mistake—who doesn't when talking sometimes?" she asserted that she meant to say that all along, which was plainly ridiculous.

It's true that we still associate "I was like…" with the informal speech of younger people, and you wouldn't use it in something like a news article ("Today, President Obama announced a new national security strategy. He was like, 'America faces many threats'..."). But in and of itself that doesn't make it problematic. In fact, it's even a little richer than "I said" because it evokes a meeting of feeling and language—"I was like" isn't just about what came out of your mouth, it also implies a state of mind.

Anyhow, thinking about this has reminded me that the impulse to sneer at new usages just because people like you didn't come up with them is usually wrong, unless you can come up with a good reason to do so. But I still reserve my right to get mad at "I could care less."

I now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.